SEE ALSO: Colombia Organized Crime and NewsDuring the raid, authorities found over 24 illegal mining sites and destroyed 50 pieces of machinery. The size of the illegal mining operation also revealed the scope of environmental destruction caused in the Telembí triangle, having contaminated five rivers. This environmental toll has been devastating across Colombia. In January, two important rivers in the department of Chocó were reported as having been severely polluted. Nationally, more than 2,000 hectares are deforested every month due to open-pit gold mining, and heavy traces of mercury have been reported in water resources and rivers.
InSight Crime AnalysisThe department of Nariño has provided a wealth of illicit economies for criminal groups in Colombia, from deforestation to coca production. However, illegal mining operations have become an increasingly important source of income, often topping profits from illicit drugs like cocaine. The Telembí Triangle, in particular, has proven popular with criminal actors, such as the ELN and the Urabeños. Reaching Barbacoas, its largest town, can take up to 10 hours from cities such as Pasto and Tumaco. It is this very remoteness and the ensuing low presence of authorities which makes it an attractive proposition for criminal activities. Furthermore, control over the rivers in the Triangle, along which much of the mining happens, also means controlling the most important drug trafficking routes. Like in the rest of Colombia, gangs in Nariño have tapped into the easy profits to be made from illegal mining. Recently, the Colombian army seized a mine in Bajo Cauca, where Los Caparrapos earned about $200,000 a week. In Chocó, an Iranian-run gang mine paid the Urabeños to be able to operate in the region. Gold is in many ways an ideal product for these gangs. It can be laundered within Colombia, exported to nearby countries such as Ecuador and Suriname, and can be “legalized” through shell companies before being sold legally overseas. With this increasing demand for gold driving up extortion revenues, illegal mining is now a permanent and flourishing part of Colombia’s criminal landscape. And in Telembí and many other rural areas, its destructive environmental and social costs are also just another fact of life.
SEE ALSO: Coverage of Soccer CrimeViáfara started his career at Deportivo Pasto in 1998 before going on to have an international career, playing for Portsmouth and Southampton in the UK and Real Sociedad in Spain. He played 43 times for the Colombian team and featured in the 2004 and 2007 Copa America.
InSight Crime AnalysisViáfara is just the latest Latin American football player who made a career change into criminal activity. Edinho, one of Pelé’s sons, was arrested several times for drug trafficking and money laundering. Mexico’s Rafael Marquez played in the World cup in Russia last year, while being under investigation for his links with drug trafficker Raúl Flores. Goalkeeper Omar ‘el Gato’ Ortiz, linked to the Urabeños, declared being guilty for involvement in at least two kidnappings. Former Brazil and Inter Milan star, Adriano, was linked to drug traffickers in Rio de Janeiro. were all linked to Colombia’s drug trafficking organizations. In February, Diego León Osorio, who briefly played for Colombia’s national team, was sentenced to five years of house arrest after trying to smuggle a kilo of cocaine on a flight to Spain in 2016. Organized crime and football have been closely linked in Colombia, with many cases of drug lords being involved with football clubs, especially in the 1980s and 1990s. Envigado FC was largely owned by Oficina de Envigado’s Gustavo Upegui. Medellin’s football club Atletico Nacional was used to launder money by its president Hernán Botero from 1970 until 1984, when Botero was extradited to the US. Notorious drug lord Pablo Escobar has also been linked to this club, and would invite players to play with him in his self-build prison La Catedral. America de Cali was financially supported by the Rodriguez brothers, who were at the head of the Cali cartel. Phanor Arizabaleta, a leader of the Cali cartel, was involved with Independiente Santa Fe until the end of the 1980s. In more recent years, Colombia’s top criminals have sought to keep lower profiles, mostly avoiding the evident connections the cartel leaders had with the football clubs. The new generation of drug traffickers, known as “the Invisibles”, have learned that anonymity is the ultimate protection. However, examples such as Viafara’s suggest that these two worlds still remain interconnected.
SEE ALSO: ELN in Venezuela ProfileThe situation today is different. Venezuela is a now major source of income for the ELN, not just from extortion, but the running of illegal gold mines, many of these in Bolívar, hundreds of kilometers away from the Colombian border. There is also evidence of involvement in drug trafficking, with planes laden with cocaine departing from areas of Venezuela under ELN control. The recruitment of Venezuelans into ELN ranks now number in the hundreds, according to our sources. The ELN has also been engaging in political work in Venezuela, infiltrating local politics in many of the states and municipalities where it has a strong presence and building up social and political networks that reflect those in places like Arauca, on the Colombian side of the border. They have even been distributing food in Venezuela. Our analysis on this was recently confirmed in Revista Semana by an old friend, a fellow Briton who has lived for two decades in Venezuela, Phil Gunson, who now works for International Crisis Group:
“On this side of the frontier, we feel that the ELN…is more and more a Venezuelan organization, not Colombian, in the sense that its most important bases and its principal sources of income are on this side, where it recruits more and more Venezuelans.”This has huge policy implications for Colombia and for the United States as it seeks to promote regime change in Venezuela. It will also help define the future of the Colombian civil conflict as well as the possibilities of a Venezuelan civil conflict. One must remember that the ELN was born with backing from Cuba, the most important ally of the current Maduro regime. Is it a coincidence that ELN expansion in Venezuela has occurred as the Cuban-backed Maduro resists multiple threats to his grip on power? Unlikely. Will the ELN defend the Maduro regime against opposition elements seeking power? Almost certainly, as this would represent a direct challenge to their interests in Venezuela.
SEE ALSO: ELN News and ProfileIt also means that the ELN is unlikely to roll over if a US-backed government takes power in Venezuela and threatens its strongholds and influence in the country. The ELN has been resisting US-backed governments in Colombia for decades, why would it act any differently in Venezuela? The current situation in Venezuela provides perfect conditions for the ELN to expand, politically, militarily and economically, as well as present itself as a Pan-American and Bolivarian, not just Colombian, rebel force. However, another scenario could also suit the ELN. A fully fledged civil conflict in Venezuela, where it could ally itself with ‘colectivos’, radical Chavista elements in the military and militia as well as the organized crime groups that have deep roots in the Maduro regime. This unifying of civil conflicts in Colombia and Venezuela is a very real possibility and one that should be guiding policy-makers in Colombia and abroad as they promote regime change in Venezuela. But it is not just the ELN who depend on Venezuela for sanctuary, funding and recruitment. The ex-FARC Mafia, more specifically the FARC dissidents, also have significant, and growing, presence across the border. Their biggest outpost is in the Venezuelan state of Amazonas, under the command of the FARC’s most famous narco-guerrilla, Géner García Molina, alias “Jhon 40.” Up to 500 ex-FARC mafia are based here, a large percentage of them Venezuelan, and perhaps the main dissident leader, Miguel Botache Santillana, better known as “Gentil Duarte.” Colombia and Venezuela are like Siamese twins, their criminal histories joined at the hip. Relying on primitive diplomacy, military action and short-term gains will simply result in prolonged suffering. What is needed is considered and precise surgery to ensure that both countries tackle their criminal issues in tandem, with a long-term view and intimate cooperation on the social and economic fronts, not just from a law enforcement perspective. Current government rhetoric does not suggest the presence of any such subtlety. A civil conflict in Venezuela will simply only strengthen the ELN and Colombia’s criminal dynamics and condemn us to further decades of violence.
SEE ALSO: Coverage of Illegal MiningIn an attempt to contain the environmental damage, multiple organizations, including officials from the city of Cúcuta, have enacted initial measures to deal with the ongoing situation in the region. Such measures will further examinate the impacted area, which will then provide local authorities with a report to punish and convict those responsible for the devastation caused.
InSight Crime AnalysisCúcuta is known for its proximity with Venezuela and as a hotspot for illicit economies such as human smuggling, drug trafficking and contraband. But the latest news of illegal mining in Cerro Mono shines a light on a criminal activity that has been unfolding in the shadows of the Venezuelan border crisis. Illegal mining for gold and other resources has been well documented in other areas of Colombia such as Antioquia, Chocó, and the Catatumbo area of Norte de Santander. However, not much attention had been focused on Cerro Mono, partly due to the focus on the other illicit activities that are prevalent in Cúcuta. The sudden attention to the ecological crisis in the region came after more than 300 farmers held a demonstration at the city hall of Cúcuta in early March. This was a rare sight, as often local groups typically benefit from the illegal practices for sustainability. According to the Colombian government, illegal mining is responsible for almost 8 percent of all deforestation in the country. It was believed that illicit coal mining was concentrated in the area of Catatumbo, but clearly, the practice is now moving closer to the biggest city in the department. Colombian illegal mining and the use of heavy machinery that causes irreparable environmental damage. With a water supply shortage of at least 50 percent in the region, it is clear to see why the local residents have firmly taken a stand against illegal mining and its catastrophic damage.
InSight Crime AnalysisThe real-life impact of the eradication versus substitution debate has not received enough attention. The reality in rural areas is that coca production has been a means of survival. The FARC peace process and the move away from such production was not a mere economic argument, it involved a shift in lifestyle for hundreds of thousands of Colombians. Voluntary substitution programs might be seeing high compliance rates to date but the government’s increasingly tough stance threatens to reverse the successes seen by the PNIS so far.
SEE ALSO: Coverage of FARC Peace ProcessSome families report that they have not received payments owed to them as part of the PNIS, and other incentives to prevent the cultivation of coca have also been frozen, at least temporarily. InSight Crime found that in the municipality of Santa Rosa del Sur, in Sur de Bolivar, that the first round of payments arrived as scheduled for PNIS participants in September 2018. However, the second installment was due in November but had not been paid out by the end of February. In the nearby municipality of Simití, residents reported that the first payment had never arrived. The impact has been swift. In areas of Colombia where the presence of the state is scarce, this has led to a return to coca cultivation by families who depend on it. Rural farmers in Sur de Bolivar confirmed to InSight Crime that they pay soldiers off to not eradicate their coca crops or only destroy part of them, while registering the eradication as complete. This reversal is all the more tragic as significant efforts had been made to get voluntary crop substitution efforts to where they are. Convincing families to sign up was a long, drawn-out process, often involving the implication of community leaders, who spoke up in defense of the government’s intentions and quelled doubts. Impacts within these communities will be wide-ranging. Those same leaders, who vouched for the peace process, now face losing the trust placed in them, if not more severe reprisals. Worse, armed groups may now seek retribution against those communities or residents who signed up to the crop substitution program and accepted government funds. Another challenge is that these crop substitution efforts have not been rolled out in partnership with other efforts, such as Territory-Focused Development Programs (Programas de Desarrollo con Enfoque Territorial – PDET), which seek to promote the development of priority municipalities in the post-conflict environment. Leaving these programs isolated makes their ultimate success less likely and allows them to be progressively weakened.
SEE ALSO: ELN News and ProfileFor the purposes of this discussion, one implication is that many members of the FARC, who entered the peace process in good faith, feel they are being pushed back into an outlaw life. This does not necessarily mean that they will again take up arms against the state, but they will return to the criminal economies that once funded the FARC’s five-decade-old civil conflict. Let me make a prediction: if President Iván Duque does not embrace the peace agreement with the FARC and fulfill its conditions to the best of his ability (and resources), as well as strengthen the JEP, the ex-FARC Mafia, allied with elements of the ELN, will establish a criminal hegemony across parts of Colombia and become a new national security threat within three years. And if a government elected on the back of a promise to improve security allows this to happen, then this will be a betrayal of those who voted for it. President Juan Manuel Santos must share some of the blame as he signed an agreement and made a lot of promises that he did not keep during his administration, thus passing a Herculean challenge to his successor. However, that is then, and we are talking about now and the days to come. Let us explore further the nature of this growing criminal threat, which we at InSight Crime call the ‘ex-FARC Mafia.’
SEE ALSO: Coverage of Ex-FARC MafiaThis is made up of three components: the FARC dissidents (called by the government Residual Organized Armed Groups – Grupos Armados Organizados Residuales), that profess some sort of ideology, and see themselves as the continuation of the now demobilized guerrilla army; the FARCRIM, which are groups of former FARC members which are involved in criminal activities, but have no ideological pretensions; and the ‘hidden FARC’, which is comprised of rebels that never entered the peace process, but remained in the field, keeping control of criminal economies. With daily monitoring and field research, we have found at least 37 criminal units linked to the ex-FARC Mafia. Added to this we have good intelligence showing that the FARC dissidents, under Miguel Botache Santillana, alias “Gentil Duarte” and Nestor Gregorio Vera Fernández, alias “Iván Mordisco,” hace reached an agreement with ELN elements commanded by Gustavo Aníbal Giraldo Quinchía, alias “Pablito,” to divide up territory across the eastern plains and within Venezuela. Taking advantage of the still expanding cocaine production, illegal mining and extortion, the ex-FARC mafia are growing, controlling drug routes into Venezuela, Ecuador and Brazil and earning enough money to fund exponential growth, should they find enough recruits and reconnect with other ex-FARC Mafia cells across the country. We believe that if the ex-FARC Mafia can find a leader of national prominence and exceptional ability (Luciano Marin Arango, alias “Iván Márquez,” and Hernán Darío Velásquez, alias “El Paisa,” spring to mind) it will be able to unite up to 4000 hardened criminals, which allied with a significant percentage of 4000 ELN members could establish criminal hegemony not only in Colombia’s eastern plains and across into Venezuela, but across Colombia, creating a criminal network of national reach. Does this sound familiar?
SEE ALSO: Colombia Organized Crime and NewsZeus was wanted, including by Interpol, for “manufacturing and trafficking or possession of firearms, accessories, parts or ammunition, and restricted use ammunition, of exclusive use by armed forces or explosives.” He is accused of being the top arms dealer for members of the National Liberation Army (Ejército de Liberación Nacional – ELN) in the Colombian department of Antioquia. According to Colombian police, Zeus acquired arms in the United States, brought them to Central America and, through courier companies, sent them to Colombia. There, he used cargo trucks and buses to reach multiple ELN structures in Antioquia department as well as other criminal groups. The capture took place as part of an international operation carried out by Interpol, which concluded with 560 arrests in eight countries of Latin America.
InSight Crime AnalysisThe arrest of Zeus reveals the modus operandi of arms suppliers to the most powerful criminal groups in Colombia, who had largely remained below the radar. Using a car repair company as a front, Zeus built up his profile as a businessman, allowing him to profit from the illicit arms trade without attracting unwanted attention. His ELN contact was known as “Mauricio,” who received the weaponry and distributed them concealed inside public buses.
SEE ALSO: ELN News and ProfileZeus’ neutral position was crucial for carrying out these business transactions. His clients also included dissident members of the demobilized Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia – FARC), according to local media reports. The range of weapons Zeus offered was also very attractive for his buyers. His array of weapons included the Barret .50 caliber rifle, used for penetrating armored vehicles and reaching targets up to two kilometers away, Glock and Beretta handguns, assault rifles and hand grenades However, these arms dealers masquerading as legitimate businessmen are not the only dealers supplying weapons to criminal structures in the country. Members of Colombia and Ecuador’s armed forces have increasingly been linked to the illicit arms trade. In 2017, Major Héctor Murillo was arrested for his ties with the Urabeños and sentenced for corruption and selling weapons to this organization.
SEE ALSO: Coverage of CocaOn the other hand, former President Juan Manuel Santos criticized the “high human cost” of forced eradication and the lack of attention that modifying the ban on glyphosate has on one of the primary threats to eradicating coca crops: farmers replanting them. Rates of “replanting were and continue to be high — more than 60 percent in some cases — not only because there’s no territorial control, but because small farmers simply do not have any alternatives to replanting [coca crops],” the former president said. In 2015, the Santos administration halted the use of the Monsanto-produced glyphosate to fumigate coca crops. Both Colombian and US authorities have called to revive its use in the years since despite the World Health Organization’s (WHO) findings that the herbicide has “links to cancer.” Other critics of the use of glyphosate and forcibly eradicating coca crops echoed Santos’ statements, arguing that the human costs and vulnerability of eradication teams should make officials “seriously rethink” how best to address the country’s coca cultivation and related cocaine production.
(Click to enlarge)The amount of land being used to cultivate coca — the raw ingredient in cocaine — and total cocaine production in Colombia have been on the rise since 2013. A record 171,000 hectares were used for coca cultivation in 2017, helping the world’s top cocaine producer manufacture 1,379 metric tons of the drug, a 31 percent increase from the year before, according to the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC).
InSight Crime AnalysisThe Duque administration in Colombia is convinced that, despite its past failures and high humanitarian costs, a return to aerial fumigation using glyphosate is the only way to help curtail record coca cultivation and cocaine production in the Andean nation, something his predecessor was unable to reign in. “This isn’t a decision about a herbicide, the true discussion is about the risks and threats that our country is confronting,” Duque said. Antioquia Governor Luis Pérez Gutiérrez supported the president, explaining that “illicit crops in Colombia smell of blood and crime.” The governor added that the state is “losing the war to eradicate illicit crops.” Coca cultivation in Antioquia was relatively low in comparison to the country’s main cocaine-producing departments of Nariño and Putumayo around 2006 and 2007, when the government was spraying coca crops at its highest rates. Since then, however, coca cultivation in the northwest department has jumped from 6,096 hectares in December 2008 to 9,343 hectares in December 2016, increasing another 55 percent to 13,681 hectares in December 2017, according to the UNODC. In particular, the Bajo Cauca region of Antioquia has been the sight of brutal battles waged over drug trafficking and other illicit activities between the Urabeños and a network of dissident former Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia – FARC) fighters from the 36th Front that is aligned with a splinter group known as the Caparrapos. However, while aerial fumigation can produce short-term reductions in coca cultivation, coca crops have recovered in the long-term as farmers replant and grow more crops in response, while also deploying other strategies to adjust their growing operations in the wake of increased forced eradication. The citizens of southwest Nariño and Putumayo departments — which, according to the UNODC, were Colombia’s biggest cocaine producing departments and accounted for nearly 50 percent of the total land used for coca cultivation in 2017 — know this better than anyone. “Human eradication has cost us the most valuable thing: human lives. Police and small farmers have lost their lives during eradication efforts,” said Nariño Governor Camilo Romero Galeano, arguing that one effective solution over the use of glyphosate is the substitution of coca crops.
SEE ALSO: Colombia News and ProfileIndeed, nine civilians were killed and 18 others wounded in an October 2017 clash over the government’s forced eradication of coca crops in the Pacific port city of Tumaco. Other civilians and government officials have also been killed while forcibly eradicating coca crops in this criminally strategic department. Putumayo Governor Sorrel Aroca added that small farmers are waiting for the government to “fulfill what was promised as part of the crop substitution program” included in the FARC peace deal. Known as the National Comprehensive Program for the Substitution of Illicit Crops (Programa Nacional Integral de Sustitución de Cultivos de Uso Ilícito – PNIS), criminal violence, tensions between coca farmers and UN observers, as well as a lack of state presence and the government’s slow implementation of key aspects of the program have all threatened its implementation. What’s more, aggressive coca eradication goals and government neglect regarding payment to families partaking in the PNIS program have also jeopardized its success. Some reports suggest that voluntary crop substitution is more effective than forced eradication when it comes to farmers replanting coca crops. A recent United Nations study, for example, found that 35 percent of small farmers replant coca crops after security forces forcibly eradicate them. But when communities voluntarily substitute coca crops, just 0.6 percent of farmers replant them, El Tiempo reported. Still, what’s been lost in the black and white debate about a return to the use of glyphosate is the complexity of combatting coca cultivation and cocaine production in Colombia, and the need for a multifaceted strategy with a long-term focus. If the government can’t guarantee the safety of small farmers from powerful criminal groups, and if small farmers don’t have viable alternatives to coca crops that allow them to earn a living wage, then the country’s anti-drug struggles seem poised to continue. *This article was written with assistance from InSight Crime’s Colombian Organized Crime Observatory. (Top: AP Photo/Fernando Vergara)